Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Reputation by Sara Shepard


Things are not going well at Aldrich University.  A hacker has broken into the university's servers and has released an easily searched database of all the emails of each student, administrator, faculty and staff as well as the medical personnel attached to the university.  This leads to revelations of many scandals and gossip runs wild.  The ante is upped when Dr. Greg Strasser is found murdered in his kitchen the night of the Aldrich annual fundraising gala.  Strasser is married to the university president's daughter, Kit Manning, the main fundraiser.  Did she kill him?

Greg had been revealed as having a torrid affair.  Kit doesn't remember coming home that night from the fundraiser just finding Greg.  Although she didn't drink at fundraising events, that night she had in order to face down the gossips whispering about Greg.  But Kit isn't the only suspect.  There is Laura, a nurse whose newborn baby has Greg's piercing blue eyes.  Kit's daughters are acting strangely.  Willa, Kit's sister and a scandal journalist comes home to support her sister and investigate the mystery but she has secrets of her own.  There is Raina, a student who worked as the university president's assistant and who has befriended Kit's daughter.  She seems to have some connection to Greg as well.  Then there are the men whose wives, daughters and girlfriends have been seduced by Greg.  

This twisty tale of gossip, backstabbing and secrets is a real pageturner.  There are multiple characters and the story is told in turn from each character's point of view.  Everyone has a secret they don't want revealed and the hack puts all those tawdry actions out in full view of all.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Dead Of Winter by Stephen Mack Jones

 August Snow is a native Detroit guy.  A former policeman, Snow is now retired and a millionaire due to a civil settlement leading from an injury on the job.  Snow grew up in Mexicantown and one of his favorite places was Authentico Foods.  Ronaldo Ochoa, the founder of Authentico was a friend from back when the restaurant was just starting.  Now the restaurant has morphed into a company that supplies tortillas to restaurants throughout the area.

Ochoa asks Snow to come meet him.  To Snow's surprise, Ochoa asks Snow to buy his company.  Ochoa is older and ill and wants to assure that his company will survive to provide for his family.  He has been approached by a shadowy figure to buy him out and Ochoa fears that the proposed purchaser wants to raze the company and develop the area for the professionals who are starting to return to Detroit.  Snow isn't interested in buying but agrees to look around.

As he investigates, Snow starts to see that what Ochoa had feared is true and that violence isn't out of the question for the people behind the offer.  Soon Snow and his friends are caught up in a maelstrom of violence with assassins gunning for them.  Can Snow unravel the business and those behind it before he and his friends are killed?

This is the third August Snow novel.  Readers may find the violence a bit over the top and the lack of police follow-up after multiple killings is a sticking point.  Outside of that, the author explores the topic of gentrification in a realistic manner with the results of such development on those who already live in the area and who are forced out.  It is an interesting viewpoint from a detective of color and one whose roots in the black and Hispanic communities are deep.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid


Detective Karen Pirie is in limbo at the police station.  She headed up the case that sent the former superintendent of the station to jail for murder and has now been shunted aside as the head of the Cold Care Review Team.  Her new supervisor is not sure what to make of her but he knows he doesn't like what he sees.  Unfortunately, he has to depend on her when two cases show up at the same time.

Back in 1984, a sensational case happened in this rural locality.  The daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Scotland, Sir Broderick Maclennan Grant, was kidnapped along with her infant son.  During the ransom payoff things went badly and the daughter was killed, her son never found.  Now new evidence has shown up in the case and it has landed in Pirie's lap.

At the same time another cold case from the same time period has been reported.  Misha Gibson shows up at the police station to report her father missing.  Not unusual except that he went missing twenty-two years before and this is the first report filed.  Misha's mother always assumed Mick Prentice ran out on the marriage and his daughter and they learned to live with that.  His best friend went missing at the same time and it was during the coal strikes when society was disordered.  They figured Mick just upped stakes and went to find a better life somewhere else but now Misha's son is sick and needs a blood donor to have a chance at getting better so Misha wants him found.  Can Karen juggle the two cases and solve them both?

This is the second Karen Pirie novel in the series.  She is an interesting character, a confident woman who isn't described as the most attractive woman anyone has ever seen but the average woman most of us are used to seeing in daily life.  Pirie is intelligent and insightful and has the determination and force to follow a case from start to finish no matter the price she has to pay with her superiors in order to get to the solution.  As such, she is a breath of fresh air.  The cases are intriguing and the resolution is satisfactory.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Runner by Thomas Perry


Jane Whitfield has retired from her work helping people disappear.  These days she leads the life of a surgeon's wife in upper New York, volunteering at the hospital and living her life.  But when the girl comes to her begging for help, Jane decides that maybe she needs to do one last job.  The fact that there is an explosion at the hospital minutes later with the people searching for Christine responsible makes her decision a reality.  She grabs Christine and off they go.

This will be a hard job.  Christine is pregnant.  Her boyfriend wants her back because his wealthy parent will cut him off unless he can produce a grandchild.  Unfortunately, Christine also knows about his unlawful deals and can send him to jail if word gets out.  He sends six people to track her down and bring her home. The six are professional finders and they make it clear early on that they will stop at nothing to bring Christine back.  What they hadn't counted on was that Jane is just as determined and will whatever it takes to help Christine escape to a new life.

This is the sixth novel in the Jane Whitfield series.  Thomas Perry is one of my favorite authors.  His tight plotting and his knowledge of all the details that would have to be attended to in order for a person to escape their life is fascinating.  Jane is an enigma; a woman who will stop at literally nothing in order to help those who must flee for their lives.  What motivates her to put her life at such risk?  How many times can she do this successfully?  This book is recommended for thriller readers.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Demi-Monde Winter by Rod Rees


The Demi-Monde is a computer virtual reality game created to train the military.  It is the most elaborate game ever developed with millions of characters, most of whom are programmed to be vicious and desperate for power.  The world is broken into sectors which are based on reality so there are sectors for England, Europe, the far East, Russia and other geographical regions.  The cultures in each sector is distinct with some having male dominated cultures, other women dominated, some futuristic, some caught up in Victorian times.  The worst villains in history are leaders in these sectors.

Somehow, the President's daughter has been transported into the game.  The government is tasked with getting her back to reality and they recruit Ella to head up the mission.  Ella is a college student just looking for a way to finance her studies and the five million dollar payday is just what she is looking for.  Whether she would agree if she knew what was facing her is another story.

Once inserted, Ella find some allies to help her.  The main one is a magician who can get into any place and who agrees to use Ella as his assistant.  That requires her to play various things such as a magician's assistant and a voodoo queen.  The two manage to find the President's daughter who is a spoiled brat.  Can they now get her back while the Demi-monde is about to break into a war to rival that of World War II?

This is the first novel of four in this series.  The world building is elaborate and detailed and the use of historical characters is interesting.  There are many characters and each is given a full backstory.  The interplay of these characters fuels the novel along with the main mission.  This book is recommended for sci fi readers.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides


Mariana Andros goes to Cambridge to be with her niece Zoe when Zoe's friend is found murdered.  A therapist, Mariana worries about Zoe's mental health after the death.  They are both still grieving the recent death of Mariana's husband.  Simon and Mariana raised Zoe after the death of her parents in an accident.  Zoe has more experience with loss than most her age and Mariana worries that this death may be more than Zoe can handle.

Zoe's friend is just the first.  There is a group of young women who flock around a charismatic professor, Edward Fosca.  After observing him, Mariana is convinced he is the murderer and sets out to prove it.  The police are not convinced, viewing Mariana as an amateur who doesn't have any proof to back up her theories.  They are right but Mariana is convinced her training has given her the ability to diagnose Fosca as a psychopath.  As the murders continue, can Mariana get the proof she needs?

This is Alex Micahelides' second novel.  Like his successful first novel, The Patient, it is based in the world of psychological practice.  As Mariana attempts to prove her theory, she finds that she has put herself in danger, drawing attention from the killer.  I'm not sure that universities would allow the kind of female adulation of a male professor that the book documents or that the police would give Mariana even the amount of attention she gets in the book for her theories.  Those two elements don't ring true for me but work in the book to build tension.  This book is recommended for thriller readers. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Cat And Mouse by James Patterson


Detective Alex Cross is more challenged than ever in this novel.  He is faced with two separate serial killers on the loose and the cases need his insights.  Gary Soneji, the killer Alex caught and put away for life has escaped and is on the loose.  He knows he will be caught again but he is determined to cause as much havoc as he can before then and killing Cross is definitely on his list.  At the same time, there is a killer in Europe who has claimed more than a dozen victims.  He is known as Mr. Smith and one of the FBI's top consultants wants Cross's help on that case.  He agrees to help Cross catch Soneji if Cross will help with the Mr. Smith case.  Another factor is that Cross has fallen in love.  He is starting a relationship with the principal of his children's school and worries that his job will make that relationship difficult to sustain.

The defining characteristic of Patterson's novels is pace.  He writes at a breakthroat pace with short chapters that rush the reader along on a roller coaster ride.  Alex Cross is an intriguing character and readers will be interested in reading about how his mind works.  There are lots of interesting characters around him in his family and friends and plenty of twists and turns to surprise the reader.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Mechanical Animals edited by Selena Chambers


In this anthology, all the stories are about mechanical animals and how such entities fit into our everyday world.  Although one might think this is a recent idea with the advent of robots and AI, it is a surprising mix of the modern and older stories as the idea has fascinated the imagination of scientists and authors for decades.

Authors in this anthology include Jess Nevins, Tessa Kum, Delia Sherman, Maurice Broaddus and Sarah Hans, Lauren Beukes, Jesse Bullington, An Owomoyela, Stephen Graham Jones, Hans Christian Andersen, Molly Tanzer, Aliette de Bodard, Nick Mamatas, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Kat Howard, Michael Cisco, Adrian Van Young, Robert Toombs, Joseph S. Pulver, Jr, Alistair Rennie, Jules Verne, Caroline Yoachim and Carrie Vaughn.

My favorite story was Closer To The Sky by Carrie Vaughn.  It is about a family on the frontier.  The young daughter of the family has been gifted a mechanical horse by her uncle who is an inventor and this horse is her original living horse who has been retrofitted by the uncle after an accident that should have taken its life.  The horse allows the girl to outwit a gang of outlaws and one of lawmen who all want to find her uncle's workshop and control his inventions going forward.  The horse saves her life out of love and the girl ends the story by vowing to learn her uncle's knowledge in order to keep her beloved companion in good stead going forward.  This book is recommended for science fiction readers.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Archer by Shruti Swamy


From the moment Vidya sees the dance form known as Kathak, she knows what she was meant to do with her life.  She is living in the in Bombay with her father and younger brother, her mother having died.  She is expected to run the household, cook, shop and clean but she knows there is more to her life than this.  She manages to study hard enough to get a scholarship to a school of engineering.

While she is studying to get her degree, it is her secondary priority.  Her first is always Kathak.  She practices for hours daily and goes for lessons with a renowned teacher several times a week.  The teacher encourages her to devote her life to dance and Vidya is glad to.

But life intervenes.  Moving forward, the reader encounters Vidya as a young wife, her husband another artist.  His media is photography.  He comes from a very wealthy family which has disowned him for marrying Vidya but the couple is happy.  When Vidya becomes pregnant, the family is willing to take her in.  Vidya wonders which she will put first, her child or her art?

This Swamy's first novel as her first publication was an anthology.  The text is poetic and dreamy as Vidya describes her feelings for her art, her friendships, her love for her husband and her child.  The message seems to be that each person must find the one thing in life that will bring them the most joy.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout


In this novel, Elizabeth Strout takes the reader again to the small town of Crosby, Maine and one of the most memorable inhabitants, Olive Kitteridge.  Olive is still the person she always was, quick to say whatever is on her mind and surprising to those around her.  She is older now and life has changed.  Olive's husband Henry has died and she is a widow.  But things change and Olive meets Jack, a retired Harvard professor and they fall in love and marry.  

The novel is a collection of stories about those who live in Crosby and their relationships to Olive.  There is the woman fighting cancer whose friends ignore her because they don't know what to say yet Olive steps in and visits and gives the woman space to say the forbidden things that are preying on her mind.  There is the teenager who is cleaning houses to make enough money to get out of town and who develops a strange relationship with the husband of one of her employers.  The reader gets to find out what is going on with the Burgess brothers, another of Strout's novels.  

Throughout the novel, Olive is the blunt woman who many turn away from and who always speaks her mind.  She isn't sure if her only son likes her although she knows he loves her.  She can show amazing kindness but is also quick to bring her friends and acquaintances to task when she sees them straying.  Those who liked the first novel, Olive Kitteridge, will enjoy returning to Olive's life and hearing more about this unique individual.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Dirty South by John Connolly


Another dead girl has been found in Burdon County, Arkansas.  That makes three in five years, all killed in the same brutal way with the same mutilations.  All are young African-American women, teenagers.  Cargill police chief Evander Griffin is determined that this murder will not get swept under the rug like the last one did.  Burdon County is up for a huge investment by a multinational company and it was deemed unadvisable to have a murderer around the last time so the death had been classified as an accident although everyone knew it wasn't one at all.

Griffin hears that there is a new guy hanging around in a bar, asking questions about the dead women.  He goes to talk with the man but his attitude is irritating and Griffin ends up taking him in and putting him in a jail cell while he checks him out.  The man is Charley Parker.  He is a New York City ex-cop, having left when the tragedy hit.  His wife and child were murdered and Parker now spends his time searching for their killer.  Griffin feels that Parker could help them find their killer and after some thought, Parker agrees.

There are plenty of suspects.  There is the Cade family who run the county.  Pappy Cade is getting older and determined that the business deal that will make Burdon County rich will be his legacy.  His older son, Jurel is an investigator with the county police while his daughter handles the politics at the state capital.  His youngest son is considered the family's weak link.  There are drug dealers and meth cookers, strip joint owners and disreputable preachers, all lining up to make money from the deal if it happens.  Which of them is killing off young women?

This is a prequel novel in the Charley Parker series although it is the nineteenth in the series.  It explores what made Parker the man he is and why he feels compelled to seek out the evil found in the world.  Some of the characterizations of the small town grifters and power hungry are a bit trite but overall the novel is a satisfactory chapter in the series and gives readers a deeper understanding of Parker.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman


It's not what he'd dreamed of but Kinch Na Shannack finds himself in a forest by the highway waiting on someone to rob.  He needs to pay the Takers Guild for his education.  All that education on stealing, lying, robbing and how to tell a tattoo that contains a spell needs to be paid for and Kinch has no other way to find the money.  But sometimes you are lucky and sometimes not.  Kinch and his cohorts rush out to rob a company only to find it contains a female knight, Galva.  She makes short work of Kinch's crew but at the end of the fight, the two decide to travel a bit together.  Galva is searching for her queen, rumored to be in giant country and she is willing to spare Kinch's life in exchange for his help.

Thus starts an epic quest.  There are dangers aplenty.  Goblins abound and there is nothing they like more than a dinner of human flesh.  Krakens kill everything in their path indiscriminately.  Giants are not jolly folk but terrifying behemoths who can kill with a swat.  Witches abound, including one called Deadlegs who lost her legs in a fight and now gets around by hacking off the legs of her dead enemies and using them until they rot past use. A blind cat takes Kinch as her soulmate.   Kinch is alternately terrified and amazed, falling in love or fighting for his life.  

I listened to this novel and it was wonderful.  The author, Christopher Buehlman, was also the narrator and his accented narration was perfect.  It is one of the few books I'd love to listen to again just to hear his voice some more.  There are songs interspersed throughout and they are done well also.  

This book is a five star rating for me.  It's one of the best fantasy books I've read lately and I read a lot of fantasy.  It is humorous and thrilling by turns.  Kinch is a thief and a rascal but his exploits hide a heart of gold.  The book is getting a lot of positive buzz with accolades such as editor's choice for Best Books of 2021 in the fantasy genre.  It is the first of a proposed trilogy and the reader will finish the last page desperate to read the next.  This book is highly recommended for fantasy readers. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Midnight In Peking by Paul French


January 8, 1937.  It is a cold and bitter night in the city of Peking.  The Chinese inhabitants are uneasy as the Japanese Army is inching its way ever closer to the city with its motto of kill and burn all.  The Foreign Legation of British, French and other countries has fewer and fewer inhabitants as they flee back to their own countries.  A young British girl, Pamela Werner, 19, is missing.  She left the night before to go skating with some friends and never returned.

But she is no longer missing.  Her body is found on the outskirts of the Legation near what is known as the Fox Towers. She has been brutally murdered and the body mutilated with its heart and other organs cut out and missing.  Pamela is the daughter of a former British consul.  The Peking police know that this will be a massive case with political implications.

Two detectives are assigned to the case.  Inspector Dennis is brought in from Shanghai to head up the British investigation while Inspector Han is in charge of the Chinese one.  Although they are to cooperate, it is soon clear that there are political forces which do not want the case solved as it may reflect poorly on the city and its inhabitants.  

There are multiple suspects.  Pamela's former headmaster has rumors of possible pediphile leanings.  A rickshaw operator has been found with a bloody rickshaw.  Pamela was dating many boys, both British and Chinese.  There is talk of a secret club of British men who run parties where young girls are paid to dance naked.  Who has killed Pamela and will the powers that be let the case be solved?

Paul French has discovered and written an in-depth exploration of this case.  He lived and worked in Shanghai for many years as a journalist and his writing skills are on full display.  The book won an Edgar Award for best nonfiction as well as a Crime Writers Dagger for nonfiction.  The case with its intricate layers of political maneuverings is fascinating for readers of true crime and is recommended for them.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguru


Klara is an AF or Artificial Friend.  She spends her days in the store window display waiting for a parent to choose her as a companion to their child. When Josie picks her from all the other AFs, Klara is excited.  She goes home with Josie and her mother and fits into the routine of the household.

Josie is pretty much always at home.  She is sickly perhaps as a result of being 'lifted' which is the term for genetic modification to give children advantages.  Klara, of course, being entirely artificial, is more intelligent but since she lacks the emotional responses of a human, filters everything through her logic base and misses much.  One example is that since Klara is solar powered, she believes that the sun is a god.  As Josie becomes sicker, Klara attempts to make a deal with the sun whom she believes can heal Josie.  She also doesn't get the emotional interactions between Josie and her mother or the mother and the neighbors.  Rick, the neighbor boy, is Josie's main friend outside of Klara.  He is not lifted and there is a stark difference between the anticipated futures for the two children.

This book is a Booker longlist nomination.  It is written in a very flat, unemotional way as that is the way that Klara, who is the narrator, views the world but which makes it more challenging for readers to engage with.  Ishiguru explores what artificial intelligence will mean for our world when humans are perhaps not needed to run things.  What will that mean for relationships and for the economy?  Will humans come to be seen as replaceable commodities?  Can a child be replaced by an artificial friend for those who can't have children?  There are lots of questions to ponder yet the unemotional narration makes it more difficult for readers to embrace this work.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith


Mma Ramotswe has the life she has always imagined.  As a young girl she made some rash decisions that brought pain and grief into her life.  But after her beloved father died and left her some money, she has gotten her life back on track and done exactly what she has always dreamed of doing.  She bought a house and a shop and has opened the only ladies' detective agency in Botswana.

Mma Ramotswe wasn't sure if there was really a need for a woman detective but she is pleased to see that cases show up as soon as she opens the door for business.  Some are trifling such as finding a lost dog.  There are always women who want to know if their husbands are faithful and men wanting to know the same about their wives.  There are parents who want to be sure their children are on the right path and sadly, parents whose children are missing.  There are insurance fraud cases and even murders to solve.

Mma Ramotswe goes about her business in a common sense manner.  She considers what is the most likely solution and then figures out how to prove what she suspects.  She has a network of friends who can help, from mechanics to lawyers to policemen.  She is not necessarily going to tell the police about her cases but may handle them discreetly.  All in all, she is a successful detective.

This is the first novel in what went on to become a successful series for Alexander McCall Smith. At this time, there are twenty-two novels in the series with the last being published in the last year.  Mma Ramotswe is a favorite with readers with her common sense solutions and her philosophy of life.  Readers will find comfort in this African cozy mystery series.  

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Towns Without Rivers by Michael Parker


Reka Speight and her brother Randall are determined to see more of the world than their rural town of Trent in Eastern North Carolina.  Born into a poor family with a mother who died early, siblings who grew up and moved right into Trent adulthood and an alcoholic father, these two of the children yearn for something more.  Life isn't easy and Reka has just emerged from a five year prison sentence.  She stood by while her wealthy boyfriend overdosed and his father demanded justice.  Reka didn't have any money and her defense was minimal so she ended up with the blame for the man's death.

Now that Reka is out she is willing to do anything to move on.  When she is offered the chance to go out to the Midwest to sell books door to door she jumps at it; in the early 1960's this is still a viable job.  She does this for a while then continues drifting, ending up in Montana.  In the meanwhile, Randall has gone to Norfolk to live with an older brother and work in the shipyards.  But he yearns for Reka and although he doesn't know exactly where she is, Randall hits the roads determined to find her. Reka finds love along the way but it isn't an uncomplicated situation.  Will Reka and Randall find each other again and will they make their way out of poverty to find happier lives?

This is Michael Parker's second novel and it is a great one.  Parker is a writer who deserves a much wider audience and is local to me, working and writing at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.  I've read almost all of his novels over the years and have never read a bad one.  His strength is character portrayal and those in the South will immediately recognize Reka and Randall as true representations of those found in the region.  He uses these two characters to explore what makes life worth living and the struggles most of us have reaching a satisfactory life.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Second Place by Rachel Cusk


M is a middle-aged woman, a writer with some small success.  She is living with her second husband, Tony, in the marshes of England in a remote location and her daughter has recently moved back home as well.  Surrounded by family, M should be happy but she feels that she is cut out for a more artistic life and that she needs inspiration.  While Tony was clearing their land, he finds a cottage which the couple sets up as their 'second place', somewhere they can invite guests.

M had admired the paintings of L, an artist who had been quite famous at one time but had now fallen into obscurity.  She invites him to come stay with them and is delighted when he agrees.  She imagines long talks with him and that his work will be reimagined and vibrant once more due to their location.  She sees herself as a patroness of the arts.

The first clue that things will not work out is on L's arrival.  Instead of coming alone, he arrives with a young woman with whom it is obvious he has a relationship.  It is obvious that the couple think little of M and Tony, believing more that they are gracing them with their company rather than feeling any gratitude.  L is interested in painting Tony and M's daughter but has no interest in M and seems to avoid her as much as possible.  This sets the stage for conflict between M and L, and between M and Tony as he tries to put his foot down on her behaviour.

This book has been nominated for the 2021 Booker Prize.  Rachel Cusk has a long history of writing awards including the Whitbread Award for First Novel and nominations for the Orange Prize, the Bailey Prize, the Giller Prize and others.  In this work, she explores the feelings of a middle-aged woman, someone whose first age of beauty has passed and who is working out what the rest of her life will be.  M is someone the reader will want to shake.  Her husband is caring and loving, his only thoughts to watch over her and protect her but M almost ignores him in her quest to become important to another man and to fulfill her expectations of being a patron of the arts.  Similarly, she isn't sure how to relate to her daughter and M's self-image can only be filtered through the thoughts and actions of those around her.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.